Monday Morning Critic: The Return of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and This Week’s Debuting Pilots
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: a preview of ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ praise for ‘Happy Valley,’ and quick hits on five pilots premiering this week.
Before dealing with this week’s pilots, it’s worth discussing one of the best shows returning this week. ‘Sleepy Hollow’ premieres tonight at 9 pm, immediately after the premiere of ‘Gotham.’ For those that fell under this show’s unique charms last year, tonight’s episode (and next week’s installment, both previewed for critics) will not disappoint. For those of you that don’t watch and are asking yourself, “Is this guy really praising a show that featured a shotgun-toting Headless Horseman in the pilot?”, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”
That “yes” is partially due to something as bonkers as a shotgun-toting Headless Horsemen. I mean, I’m not immune to that level of outlandishness. But the secret to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ isn’t really a secret at all. It’s the one thing all classic TV series possess: great characters. That sounds like a reductive way to separate the good from the bad in television, but it’s simultaneously the easiest thing to grasp and the most difficult to achieve. Literally no show has ever sought to not have compelling characters. But the number of times shows fail to clear this singular bar indicates how difficult it is to do.
In fact, I’d argue (and have) that simply slapping words like “bonkers” onto analysis of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ does this program a disservice. Sure, it has more outlandish moments than most network primetime shows combined, but at its core, it has developed its leads Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) into one of the most compelling duos on television. Note I say “duo,” not “couple,” here: While there are plenty who ‘ship these two despite Ichabod’s every action done in service of freeing his wife from Purgatory, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is smart enough to recognize that not every form of love is romantic. Ichabod and Abbie respect and admire one another, which is a form of love unto itself separate from physical attraction. These are two people that need each other, are there for one another, and act accordingly when one of them is in danger. It’s definitely love, but not a form that has reduced ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to a supernatural love triangle.
On top of that, with ‘Enlisted’ no longer around, ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is now the funniest show on FOX. No offense to the actual comedies on that network, but in its second season ‘Sleepy Hollow’ continues to mine humor from everyone’s matter-of-fact approach to the surreal events in the show coupled with Crane’s inability to understand facets of the modern world. In lesser hands, these would turn into schlocky gimmicks. But the writers have found a way to deploy Crane’s confusion into each week’s mission, rather than simply try to cram in jokes just because Mison has chemistry with everyone (and everything) he comes into contact. (The dude has chemistry with a pen. A pen!!!) I laughed more at the two episodes presented for review than all Fall comedy pilots combined.
Most appealing about these two episodes is how the show is emphasizing the ensemble approach that started late last season. Abbie’s sister Jennie (Lyndie Greenwood), Ichabod’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter), and their son Henry (played by, of all people, John Noble) have beefed up roles early, after their disparate parts in the show’s overall narrative snapped into focus in last year’s finale. In particular, Jennie and Katrina reinforce the show’s refreshing approach to featuring female characters that don’t need saving. The show doesn’t make a big deal of this, favoring action over explanation. But Ichabod’s reliance on and respect for these women is only exceeded by evil’s fear of them.
This is a show that is so much more than the sum of its parts. None of this mix should work when combined. But this unique alchemy has yielded something wondrous and incredibly entertaining. Those that complain that network television is too bland (a group of which I count myself) should check this program out as a welcome respite from safe programming. For those already onboard, this season exhibits all the great qualities that made it a stand-out last season.
Potentially lost in the shuffle of pilot season is ‘Happy Valley,’ a Netflix-only exclusive that originally aired on BBC One last spring. At only six episodes, it’s as binge-worthy a show as you can find, and it manages to master the one thing eluding most limited-run narratives: Rather than tell a complete plot, ‘Happy Valley’ tells a complete story.
Now, plot and story might sound interchangeable, but they really are not. The plot tells you what happens. The story tells you what that means. Describing the plot of ‘Happy Valley’ (which features a kidnapping-gone-wrong case intertwined with a tragedy in the past of the police sergeant investigating it) misses the point, as the show uses that plot and its six-episode structure as a way to investigate how people live on past the point in which most fictional stories end. That sounds like a heavy topic, and it certainly is, but lead Sarah Lancanshire does a remarkable job of depicting a woman consistently on the verge of losing her sanity yet constantly striving to make life better for herself, her family, and her community.
One can’t help but root for struggle, which is only one of many depicted in the program. The architecture of the program is rather stunning, in that it inverts the normal pace one expects from a series such as this and deals as much with what follows the “solution” of the case as the investigation itself. ‘Happy Valley’ is a series that asks what happens when sins are brought to light. This is also a series that is smart enough to realize there’s as much drama contained within a birthday party as there is inside a crime scene. The line between the two is utterly destroyed, with the professional, the personal, and the criminal all intermingling in ways that are specific to this program yet universal for those watching.
If you are sick of dark, depressing crime dramas, trust me, I’m with you. But ‘Happy Valley’ circumvented all my current biases towards this type of program and got its hooks deep into me. Even if you think you’ve already seen plenty of shows like this, trust me: In this case, you definitely have not. Keep this program in mind as you wander through the minefields of new programming this Fall. If you find what’s there lacking, fire this up and remember what good drama programs can achieve.
Speaking of that Fall programming, let’s get to a few quick hits on shows debuting this week. While I’ll be covering returning shows such as ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Scandal’ in upcoming columns, I’ll be focusing on debuting pilots for now.
Madam Secretary (CBS, Sunday, 8 pm): I should have covered this in last week’s column, but due to the sheer overwhelming number of shows, coupled with my semi-incompetence, it was omitted. At this point, many of you reading this will have already seen the pilot, which tries to place the strongest elements of ‘The Good Wife’ into The White House. The idea of Téa Leoni and Bebe Neuwirth having a weekly subtweet sass-off sounds right up my alley. But there are a few too many red flags here, namely an unfortunate tendency to replace “subtext” with “characters stating the episode’s themes” and a conspiracy theory that already has me rolling my eyes. There’s a ton of talent of display here. Let’s hope things calm down somewhat by mid-season.
Scorpion (CBS, Monday, 9 pm): If you’ve seen the ads for this pilot, then…you’ve seen the pilot. Which is precisely the point, I’d wager: CBS wants to sell this as the offspring of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and its plethora of ‘NCIS’ shows. As a weekly procedural, this should be fine. As a weekly deployment of interesting characters…not so much. Aside from lead Elyes Gabel, no one really stands out here. While ‘Scorpion’ cribs from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in terms of its socially awkward male geniuses, it forgets that show also has a host of strong female characters that bolster those men up. Instead, we have Katharine McPhee as a mother proven so incompetent at raising her own kid that it’s almost offensive. CBS is airing this against ‘The Voice,’ which is either a mark of confidence or the kiss of death. We’ll have to wait and see. Look, there are far worse dramas premiering this Fall. But one gets the sense that if you missed a few episodes of ‘Scorpion,’ it simply wouldn’t matter. That being a good or bad thing is entirely up to you.
Gotham (FOX, Monday, 8 pm): Possibly the most anticipated new show of the fall, ‘Gotham’ is a fine noir-ish cop drama that seemingly is afraid of just being a fine noir-ish cop drama. The Batman trappings of this program choke it almost immediately, shoehorning in characters and plot that get in the way of the strong central chemistry between Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue. The only one here having fun is Jada Pinkett Smith, whose character is the most separated from the well-known DC Comics source material. Coincidence? Probably not. This is a handsomely-mounted production that overcompensates through showy cinematography and all-too-macho discourse. A simpler version of this show might not sell as well. But it would almost certainly play better. Comic-book fans looking for solid small-screen storytelling already have ‘Arrow’ and, in a few weeks, will also have ‘The Flash.’ At this point, those two shows run circles (pun intended) around ‘Gotham.’ I’ll still going to watch ‘Gotham,’ since I’m hoping the overly-crammed pilot yields to more narrative breathing room in subsequent weeks. But there’s no guarantee that will happen.
black-ish (ABC, Wednesday, 9:30 pm): It took ABC seemingly forever to find a good show to place after ‘Modern Family.’ That’s not to say it hasn’t had great shows to put in that slot, but it has consistently done things like place ‘Mixology’ over ‘Trophy Wife’ in that coveted primetime place. But this Fall, the network has put the best new Fall comedy in this slot, a move so miraculous one feels like cheering from the rooftops. While not a perfect show out of the gate, ‘black-ish’ arrives confidently with a plethora of funny jokes and a distinct set of world-views within the central family already established. Simply watching this family try to navigate their nightly dinner induces laughter, and this low-concept approach is welcome in a TV environment that relies on hook-y premises that can’t sustain over the long term.
How To Get Away With Murder (ABC, Thursday, 10 pm): If you like ‘Revenge,’ but wish is centered around bland law students rather than snobby rich people, this is the show for you! OK, that’s a touch unfair, but the structure of this show invites that comparison, and given how far off the rails ‘Revenge’ fell after its initial season, that’s not a good thing to have in the back of your mind. Viola Davis is great as the steely, enigmatic professor/lawyer at the center of the show, but by design, she’s off to the side in favor of her students in the pilot. Contrast that with ‘Scandal,’ where Kerry Washington was front and center from Moment One. I only compare the two programs because it’s important to realize ‘Murder’ is its own beast, even though ABC publicity would like you to think it’s the spiritual successor to ‘Scandal.’ The good news? ‘Scandal’ wasn’t all that great in its first season either. Letting ‘Murder’ evolve into its own thing will be smart advice for both ABC and those that love visiting Shondaland each Thursday.